To visualize the size of Virunga National Park (3,050 square miles or 7,900 square kilometers), you must imagine an area the size of the New York Metro region or twice the city of Paris. Then imagine every conceivable terrain: snow-capped mountains, fire-breathing volcanos, savannahs, wetlands, tropical forests, and the vast watery expanse of Lake Edward.”
For the last six years, less than 300 park rangers have been available to protect the entire park. But, thanks to support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Virunga park authorities are on track to add an additional 200 highly trained park rangers to their ranks by 2015.
The first graduating class of rangers was recently commissioned after spending six months in intensive training at a specially constructed camp in Ishango, on the northern banks of Lake Edward. A second recruitment drive recently yielded more than 1,800 applicants who competed for 112 training slots.
The recent graduating class of rangers stands out in part because, of the 112 candidates invited to participate in the rigorous training program, only two were not able to complete the course. What’s more, of the 110 who completed the training, four of them were women. We sat down recently in the mess hall at park headquarters in Rumangabo to interview Francine, Aline, and Germaine, three of the four female rangers that now serve in the park’s ranger force.
Rangers Muhimuzi, Kahambu, and Kisambya (L-R)
Wearing olive green fatigues and sporting black ranger berets, Francine Bwizambule Muhimuzi (25), Aline Masika Kisambya (24), and Germaine Kahambu (23), look very comfortable handling their standard issue AK-47s while discussing the six months they spent in ranger boot camp in Ishango. All three grew up in the region and come from places like Goma, Kyaviniongi, and Kiwanja. All rangers are required to have completed high school, and a good number have university degrees.
Tell me about ranger training. Was it hard?
They answer in unison, “Yes!” They all agree physical training was the hardest part. “We had to run 1, 2, 3, up to 15 kilometers with our packs full,” says Germaine.” It took at lot out of us to keep up, but we did it,” adds Francine.
What made you decide to apply to the ranger program?
“We heard about it in January, during a recruitment drive on the radio,” explains Germaine. “I was curious to learn more about the park. We kept hearing how the park authority (ICCN) was not working for the benefit of the people and I wanted to find out for myself. After six months of training, I realize ICCN is doing good work here, work that is benefiting the people. I’ve seen new water projects, clinics, and now the park is building a major hydro power plant for the benefit of the people.”
For Francine, joining the park rangers was a way for her to get up close to nature. “I really wanted to see the wildlife that I only heard about or glimpsed at in books,” she says. “To see buffalos and lions with my own eyes, that’s been an amazing experience! I also hope to see other parks around the country some day.”
For Aline, who now leads a section of ten men, it’s all about equality. “I felt it was important for us women to show the men that we can do this job, too. We need to have more equality in the ranks and women need to show they, too, can be as good and as brave as the men.”
Weren’t you a little anxious?
“I did wonder how we would adapt to this new way of life, to this new contact with other people,” Aline says. “In the end it turned out fine,” she concludes.
How was it training alongside the men?
“We had no problem with the men,” says Germaine. “They were very respectful and we slept in separate tents.”
What would you tell other women who might be interested in participating in the ranger training program?
Francine ventures, “I would tell them, “now that you’ve left your parent’s house, you have to stay strong. You have to keep your spirits high. You can’t let yourself get down.”
For the time being, Francine and Germaine are training with the park’s canine section, which they say, they enjoy very much. They hope that in a year’s time, more women will have joined the ranks of Virunga’s park rangers.
Story and interview by Kim Chaix. Images courtesy of Howard G. Buffett